How a 1950 elevator matches advanced farming practices in Cordell, Oklahoma

DSC_2318Story and Photos by Kristen Cart

Once we discovered that the Cordell, Oklahoma elevator was built by Mayer-Osborn, it became a priority to pay a visit.  Luckily an opportunity presented itself when I went shopping for an Australian Shepherd puppy for my son Jesse. Deadra Buffing breeds lovely pups at Horse Creek Aussies right there in Cordell, and we found the right dog, so off I went on a puppy mission, first flying to Oklahoma City then driving two hours west to Cordell. (I’m sure there were breeders closer to home, but this coincidence was too good to pass up.)

DSC_2335But the first stop was the Mayer-Osborn elevator. After a quick tour around the outside with my camera, I stepped inside the Wheeler Brothers Grain Company office. There, Jim Balzer greeted me. He was more than happy to share his insights and long experience with the Cordell elevator. His stint at the elevator spanned a number of owners, beginning in 1979 with General Mills.

General Mills sold their Oklahoma operations in about 1984, including elevators at Cordell, Bessie, Carrier, Reading, and the terminal at Enid. Logan Farms bought the Cordell elevator from General Mills, then Johnson’s Grain bought it. Goodpasture, out of Texas, owned it for awhile. Wheeler Brothers finally bought it in 1996 or 1997.

After 1984, a truck spout was added on the west side of the elevator, and the train spout on the east side was remodeled using salvaged parts. The old wooden doors were also replaced with metal ones. Jim said the elevator is holding corn for the first time, an atypical crop for the area, but a sign of the times due to ethanol subsidies.


Jim Balzer has worked at the Cordell elevator since 1979. The small elevator has stood as long as he can remember.

The structure is completely unique, having two driveways. It’s special features are its two legs, each rated at 5,000 bushels per hour, to achieve an unload rate of 10,000 bushels per hour. Most elevators of this size and age have long since retired because of limitations in their loading rates, if not for their lack of capacity. Jim said their newer, larger elevator at Cordell, when running “full out” with its single leg, only surpassed the old elevator by a little bit at 11,500 bushels per hour.

In the past, all manner of vehicles would line up to unload their grain at Cordell. The earliest were horse-drawn wagons, used in the old wooden elevator days (before Jim’s time, he noted), where the farmers would scoop the grain manually into the pit. Jim showed me a bit of concrete foundation by the tracks where the wood elevator used to be. A slow leg was no problem then, because the choke point of the process was the farmer’s shovel.

Years later, after the concrete elevator was built, farmers drove their trucks in and unloaded them much more quickly. They would queue up in the hot sun and wait their turn, while Jim’s young daughter brought them cold pop from a wagon.

Now, nothing much smaller than a semi-tractor trailer will bring grain, and the leg speed is much more crucial. Rail cars are also serviced at the small elevator. The Cordell elevator was far ahead of its time, able to keep up with advances in farming practices. It is a testament to the forethought of the original designers that the Mayer-Osborn elevator still meets the need.

The Mayer -Osborn Construction Company is identified on the manhole cover

The Mayer-Osborn Construction Company is identified on the manhole cover.

A Mayer-Osborn superintendent’s budget, from the back of a notepad

Ed Christoffersen papers008Story by Kristen Cart

On a slip-formed concrete elevator job, the superintendent was not expected to be deskbound. So it wasn’t a complete surprise to find a pay account jotted down on the back of Edwin Christoffersen’s handy notepad. His letters home probably came out of this paper supply, assuming he had time to write them.

The Cordell, Okla., elevator was built in 1950, when Edwin  Christoffersen took charge of the job for Mayer-Osborn Construction.

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Richard “Dick” Osborn

It is easy to forget that times were so dramatically different then.

We were entering a frightening time, with the Korean War looming. Edwin’s nephew, my dad’s brother Dick Osborn, was putting on a uniform to go fight, taking a break from building elevators for the company.

Our country was pulling out of a period of deep recession and unemployment. Air travel was a luxury, but in no sense was it the comfortable experience we have now. Airplanes were loud and flew through the ugly weather, instead of over it. In the book “Fate is the Hunter,” Ernest K. Gann recounted the very real perils of flight in those days. He made it seem all too real in his excellent book.

Ed’s notepad recalls a bit of aviation history. Deco style was modern then. In small print, it even says “Made in U.S.A.”

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Ed’s accounting.

On the reverse of this nearly empty pad of stationery, which miraculously survived for over sixty years among Edwin’s papers, is what appears to be an account of a monthly budget. It seems pretty clear that Ed would have been paid decently. The “coolies,” as they were called, did the physical labor and made $1 an hour. My dad, Jerry Osborn, got that job for one summer, and he didn’t get any special favors, either. The term was not a racial one in those days–it described the work, mostly done by local farm boys.

Edwin added up a sum exceeding $40 per month–perhaps it was what he had left over, after paying the bills. He came up with $170. Was this tally a payroll for his workers? Or was it a budget for his personal use? Did it record expenses for the Cordell project? It is hard to say.

In 1950, you could drive a good used car off the lot for a few hundred dollars, though a new Cadillac would have been out of reach for most people at over $3000. Maybe Ed had money left over to go get rowdy after work. Or maybe he could buy a good shotgun for his favorite pastime, which was hunting.

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Dick Osborn and Edwin Christoffersen nab a coyote.

I wish to thank Diane Osborn Bell for the pictures of her father, Richard “Dick” Osborn. Ed Christoffersen also kindly shared some of his dad’s personal papers, for which I am grateful.

It’s a truly illuminating way to look at man’s life and his work.

Successful concrete tests yielded an enduring elevator at Cordell, Oklahoma

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Story by Kristen Cart

During a recent visit to Nebraska, Dad and I met with the son of Edwin Louis Christoffersen to go through family pictures. Young Ed produced a treasure from among his father’s personal effects. Edwin Christoffersen was superintendent for the Mayer-Osborn Construction job at Cordell Okla., and among his duties was the engineering of a safe and durable elevator. Testing the concrete from a given supplier was of paramount importance.

This logbook shows the results of the testing for each part of the elevator’s structure. It is a fascinating bit of engineering history, and it speaks for itself.

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Cordell concrete tests006You will notice that the date and time of day was included in the calculations for each test. This is how we were able to determine when the Cordell elevator was built.

While a number of factors were recorded for each test, it is not clear to us what each term meant. Perhaps some of our readers can explain the process to us.

It is a true privilege to see some of the engineering practices in use during the 1950s, at a time when slide rules did the work of computers, yielding sufficient precision to send our astronauts to the moon in the following decade.

These builders, engineers, and innovators were pioneers, working at the pinnacle of their profession. We wish to thank Ed Christoffersen for sharing this priceless piece of history.

Newspaper clippings of the Lincoln, Nebraska, elevator show standard construction methods

Story by Kristen Cart


Omaha World-Herald

Among Edwin Christoffersen’s papers were clippings from the Lincoln, Neb., elevator construction site. While this was a Chalmers & Borton project, the clippings showed an impressively large elevator in the last stages of construction.

The story of a competitor’s biggest local project would have been of great interest to Ed, a superintendent for the Mayer-Osborn Construction Company. There is little doubt that Mayer-Osborn would have tried to get this contract. However, Chalmers & Borton frequently built the largest elevators.

It appears that the continuous pour was nearly complete for the huge structure, and that the planks were installed either for decking for the crews, or for the final pour which would cover each bin with a concrete cap. Once the concrete cured, final “wrecking out” would remove the forms.


Omaha World-Herald

The headhouse was already in place, so the elevator was very close to completion. What cannot be seen is whether equipment that would come from subcontractors for installation in the headhouse and pit had yet arrived, and of course the run that would top the elevator and provide for grain distribution was yet to be finished.

The images provide a rare glimpse of the process, one that Edwin Christoffersen saw fit to preserve, much to our delight. This is a breathtaking view of a moment in time when America built with intrepidity and confidence, and left us with a towering legacy in the Plains.

The Cordell, Oklahoma elevator project fused engineering prowess with family ties

Story by Kristen Cart


Edwin Christoffersen was the superintendent on the Mayer-Osborn Construction project in Cordell, Okla. in 1950. His son and namesake kindly provided a notebook that gave a glimpse of the concrete engineering that went into the elevator. By trial and error, the company learned best practices, creating an enduring structure which would still operate more than sixty years later.

Edwin Louis Christofferson was the son of Jens “James” Lauritz Christoffersen, a first generation American who farmed and operated a farm stand in Fremont, Neb. Edwin was one of nine children. Ed’s sister Alice married William Osborn in 1923.

When the Mayer-Osborn enterprise was in full swing, Bill Osborn tapped relatives to manage projects or to provide manual labor. He followed a common practice.

Sons Dick and Jerry Osborn worked at various times building elevators. Bill Osborn entered partnership with Eugene Mayer, the brother of Joseph H. Tillotson’s wife Sylvia. At the Tillotson Construction Company of Omaha, Bill Osborn worked with Iver Salroth, husband of Emma, a Christoffersen cousin.

Naturally, when the opportunity arose, Ed Christoffersen found employment with his brother-in-law’s company an attractive proposition.


Edwin Louis Christoffersen with his only child.

Ed’s son has kept a number of Mayer-Osborn keepsakes, in memory of his dad, who died when he was still quite young. One intriguing item was the logbook that Ed kept for the Cordell, Okla. elevator, recording concrete tests.

Various sand, gravel, and concrete mixtures were tested to a failure point to determine the ideal formula for a given project. The date and time of day was recorded for each test. In this journal, we discovered the year of construction for the Cordell elevator.

The elevator business brought families together to accomplish a common goal, and now, many years later, writing about the elevators brings the builders and their sons and daughters together again. The memories are kept in small personal repositories of clippings, photos and documents, and in tales of the job, and are captured fleetingly before the witnesses leave us.

Looking up at these great landmarks, we also look up to the patriarchs who built them, with respect, and awe.